On “Making a Difference”

On “Making a Difference”

Do I make a difference? For men, facing this question at some point in life seems almost inevitable. More so, perhaps, when it’s time to retire. Inevitable, yes, but also understandable. Because many men still feel a subtle pressure to measure their value by success at work—what is accomplished, and how much is earned.

But this “making a difference” question can produce a significant problem. The wording makes it possible to say, “No—I have not made a difference.” And I don’t think that’s possible.

I cannot imagine any man not making a difference in life. Multiple times every day, we make decisions on how we shall act and interact. What shall do about an old jacket, a text message, some discretionary income, a recyclable can, a terminally ill friend, an open block of time?

Each decision has consequences—some constructive, others perhaps hurtful. But I cannot think of any action or comment with no effect at all…whether on myself, others, or the natural world.

The impact may seem small, apparently touching just one neighbor, employee, pet, or piece of plastic. But who knows where the ripple effect of one small gesture or remark may lead?

So the relevant question for me is not, “How can I make a difference?” It is rather, “What type difference do I make?” Or, more usefully, “What kind difference do I really want to make?” Because intentional or not, every decision has outcomes, many with consequences we never foresee or imagine.

In making decisions, then, my own values become critical. How do I want to treat people? How do I want to use my resources? How do I want to regard our planet home?

These questions shift the focus from measurable results to lived values. Not, which action makes the most difference—but which decision best reflects my personal values (ideals, beliefs, morals), regardless of observable outcomes?

The aftereffects of this shift can be substantial. The more I move my focus from outcomes to values, the more likely I will be living with integrity. Not just honesty, but integrity, which I define as a person’s answers to three questions:

1) Can I quickly name a few core values (say, 5-10) that I want to live by?

2) Have I made an actual commitment to live by those values?

3) Am I willing to live by those values, even when the cost to me may be high?

Answers to these questions bring us back to where we started. Do I make difference? For every man, the answer is Yes—no matter what choices have been made so far in life. A more useful question as we age may be, What difference do I want to make, in the time I have left?

John Robertson

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